Literary Compare and Contrast

How to approach IBDP Language and Literature and IBDP Literature Paper 2.

I’m a big supporter of hack number two in this light-hearted but smart video explainer about how to study properly for any exam, including IBDP Language A: Paper 2.

Whether you are a standard or higher level student, Paper 2 tests your ability to compare and contrast the literary works you have studied on your course. In fact, the paper is the same for both higher level and standard level students. You will be give a choice of four ‘open’ questions and you will have 1 hour and 45 minutes to compare and contrast the content, form and writing features of two literary works of your choice in light of the question you choose to answer. There are 30 marks available in this paper, which represent 35% of your grade at SL and 25% at HL. The only rule you must follow when choosing your works is you may not write about a literary work that you have used for a previous assessment. That means that the work(s) you discussed in your Individual Oral Presentation and your HL Essay (if you chose a literary work at all) are off the table. Despite this limitation, that still leaves you a choice of: two out of three literary works if you are a Standard Level Lang and Lit student; at least four works if you are a Higher Level Lang and Lit student; six works if you are an SL Literature student; all the way up to choosing two out of a whopping ten remaining works should you be a Higher Level Literature student. Oh – and did I mention Paper 2 is a closed book exam? Yes, that means you’re going to have to prepare your references in advance (more on that later).

Whichever Language A course you have elected to study, in this section you’ll learn how to prepare for Paper 2, explore some different questions, see how to plan on the day, and discover how to structure and write a brilliant compare and contrast essay. You’ll find sample essays that have been written using the texts from your course which you can read and discuss, and you’ll be encouraged to prepare in the best way possible: by writing your own practice responses to sample open questions.

Class Activity 1: FAQs

Having to sit any exam can be a stressful experience, and even the best students may experience nerves and anxiety in the run up to an important exam. Thankfully, once you’re in the exam room, and it’s just you and your paper, nerves tend to melt away – and some people even report enjoying having the time and space to compose a longer piece of writing and show what they can do! One of the best ways to alleviate stress in the build up to your exams is to be confident in what you are being asked to do. So – how well do you know and understand the requirements of this paper?

Pair up and discuss these frequently asked questions – click on each one (or scroll down to the bottom of this page) to see whether you are right and to discover some good advice.

Class Activity 2: Make Your Own Revision Guide

Trying to answer correctly a question or a problem that is difficult for us, forces us to reflect exercising multiple cognitive functions. Consequently, it generates better learning, even when the answer is incorrect. The more “mental sweat” it costs us to recover some of the memory, the better it will be anchored later and the more it will also cost to forget it.

From Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
This infographic summarises scientifically proven ways to improve your learning power, retention, and problem solving abilities. It comes from the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning which is published by Harvard University Press.

I’m not going to tell you not to reread the texts you want to write about in your paper 2 exam. And i’m not going to tell you not to review your notes either. What I am going to say is that these methods practiced by themselves create something called the ‘Illusion of Knowing.’ If ever you’ve tried to answer a question in class and said something like, “I know the answer but I can’t explain it right now,” you’ve experienced the illusion of knowing for yourself. You recognise material you’ve previously seen and your brain tricks you that you ‘get it’. Familiarity is not the same as mastery – in fact, familiarising yourself with your prior learning is only the second step in a ten step process identified in the book Make It Stick (see infographic above). To help you get a few steps ahead – all the way to step 7: ‘Elaborate’ – you’re going to have to get active.

It’s not enough to simply reread what you’ve studied before. Writing in your own words generates more impact than passively reviewing what has been previously heard or read. It is useful, for example, to write a summary of what you remember immediately after reviewing your notes. Build structures by extracting the most important ideas and create a written framework for them. Don’t be afraid to explore new thoughts and ideas by connecting fresh concepts you’ve recently learned with previous concepts from your notes. After all, you may be working with texts you studied last week, last month, or even last year.

What’s more, the internet is chock full of tools that make this kind of work easier and more enjoyable. You might like to create a Padlet, collaborate with other people using Onenote, or use Canva to make a visually stunning booklet. You may know software that I’ve never even heard of, but would be perfect for making a revision guide to a literary work. Or you might prefer to work the old fashioned way with pen and paper, creating a poster, booklet or handout. However you choose to work, include in your revision guide: plot summary; setting; characters; themes; important symbols; key quotations (ten or so is a good number to aim for); the major literary features of the text; contextual information. Try to create as concise a revision guide as possible – and always try to use your own words rather than simply copying notes from one place to another. To empower yourself even further, explain your work to other students verbally once you’ve finished.

Class Activity 3: Venn Diagram

When it comes to compare and contrast, there’s no better planning method than the Venn diagram. Deriving it’s name from John Venn’s 1880s published maths papers, the humble Venn diagram has actually been used for centuries by philosophers and mathematicians to consider and organise logical relationships between two or more items – such as the two literary works you need to write about in your exam. At the beginning of your Paper 2 exam, after you’ve chosen your question and before you begin to write your answer, you can use a Venn diagram to quickly and easily organise your thoughts, highlighting how the works are similar and different in relation to a given question.

Select a question from this list, use the questions below, or work with a question you have been given by your teacher. Spend approximately ten minutes thinking about how you might use two literary works of your choice to answer the question, noting your ideas about similarities and differences between two texts on a Venn diagram template. Feed your ideas back to your classmates.

Learner Portfolio: practice for Paper 2

You know what they say: practise makes perfect. Undoubtedly the best way to prepare for any exam is to ‘Generate’ (refer to Step 8 in the Make It Stick infographic). There’s no getting away from it – paper 2 is a challenging exam. It’s probably one of your longest examinations and you might find it the most mentally and physically draining. It’s not easy to write for an hour and forty-five minutes, give or take. Generating sample answers of your own not only increases your familiarity with the texts you might use, but it will also help build your physical and mental stamina. You’ll make discoveries about the texts you read, find ways to explore complex issues, develop your own use of language, and more, through the process of generation. Practicing earlier rather than later gives you time to ‘Reflect’ (step 9) and ‘Calibrate’ (step 10) as well.

Here is a selection of open questions written in the style of the questions you’ll be given in the Paper 2 examination. You can click on some of these questions to read sample answers that have been prepared as models for you to discuss and learn from. While all of these answers have clear strengths, none are perfect, so you might like to discuss how you would approach the questions differently or improve the answers. When you feel you are ready, choose any question and prepare an answer using your own choice of two literary works. Submit your answer for grading, then add it to your Learner Portfolio:

  1. Referring to two of the literary works you have studied, discuss both how and why the text invites the reader to identify with situations, characters and/or ideas.
  2. Friendship marks a life more deeply than romantic love. Consider this idea with reference to two works you have studied.
  3. Some say ignorance is bliss. How is ‘not knowing’ presented in two of the works you have studied and to what effect?
  4. Discuss the significance of urban and/or rural settings in two works of literature you have studied.
  5. With reference to two literary works studied, consider how the point of view shapes our understanding of the story.
  6. Often the appeal for the reader of a literary work is the atmosphere a writer creates (for example, peaceful, menacing, or ironic). Discuss some of the ways atmospheres are conveyed, and to what effect, in two works of literature you have studied.
  7. How is ‘home’ depicted in two of the literary works you have studied, and what is its significance?
  8. In any two of the literary works you have studied, discuss the means as well as the effectiveness with which power or authority is exercised.
  9. Animals and images drawn from the world of animals are a rich source of inspiration for writers. Discuss how animals and natural images are used to develop central ideas in two works of literature you have studied.
  10. Works of literature can often function as social commentary. Discuss with reference to two literary works you have studied.

Wider Reading and Research

FAQ: Answers

Is Paper 2 harder than Paper 1?

I would say the answer to this question is ‘it depends’. Some students prefer the analytical writing required by Paper 1. It is also easier in terms of reading requirements: the texts in Paper 1 can usually be read in just a few minutes. On the other hand, Paper 1 is more of a ‘one-shot’ task. If you misread or misinterpret an unseen text in Paper 1, it can be difficult to compose an effective answer. Because Paper 2 involves discussing texts that you have prepared, and should be very familiar with, you are much less likely to make mistakes in understanding and interpretation.

How many works should I prepare?

Paper 2 requires you to compare and contrast any two literary works you have studied (except those you have already used for a previous assessment; the rules are quite clear that you cannot use the same text twice). If you are a Standard Level Language and Literature student, it is more than likely that you will only have three remaining texts in any case, so you should prepare two of these in as much detail as you can. There is no requirement to choose texts from the same genre – normust you prepare texts from different genres. You can prepare two poets or no poets; combine a novelist with a playwright, a non-fiction work with a collection of poetry, and so on. There are also no requirements about texts written in English and translated texts. The choice is yours. The questions you will be offered are open enough to appeal to any combination, as long as you have studied the texts as part of your literature course. Visit some of the samples prepared for you on this page to look at the variety of different text combinations in action.

Students of other courses, especially Higher Level Literature students, will have many more texts to choose from. Nevertheless, this exam paper is the same for all four Language A courses and you too will only need to write about two texts. However, it is possible that you have found many ways to compare several of your texts and are interested in preparing different combinations that will help you answer different questions. Keep in mind, though, that preparing a text in detail can be a time-consuming process and, while I’ve no doubt that English is one of your favourite subjects (!) you have other exams to prepare for as well. There is only so much time you can dedicate to revision and only so much information that your brain can comfortably hold. It is recommended, therefore, that you prepare two texts like everybody else, and certainly no more than three texts. If you do prepare an extra text, remember write about only two about once you have chosen the question you want to answer in the exam.

How do I choose the best question to answer?

The exam paper will give you a choice of four open questions of which you must pick only one. Try not to enter your exam determined to answer a specific question or type of question – what might happen if a question you prefer is not available on the day? Your choice should be primarily guided by the suitability of the texts you have prepared. It is highly likely that one of the questions is totally unsuitable for the texts you have prepared and you should eliminate this question without a second thought. For example, perhaps the question is asking you to write about the presentation of future societies in two literary works – and your texts are not set in future societies! You can also discount questions where you do not understand the wording or you have never studied the central issue in the question. For example, if a question asks you how literary works use humour to create effects, and you have never discussed uses of humour or humorous writing conventions in your class, it might be wise to avoid this question as well. Use the process of elimination to quickly narrow down your options.

Once you have eliminated one or two questions, you should be left with a manageable choice, or maybe even a straight decision to make out of two. Any question you have not crossed out by now is a question that, theoretically, you could answer. It is time to make a confident choice about which question is most suitable for the texts that you have prepared. You may be lucky and something that you have studied extensively in class might be staring you right in the face. For example, perhaps you wrote a Learner Portfolio entry about a certain writer’s use of symbolism – and here’s a question asking you to compare symbolism in two literary works. Even if this is not the case, you should be able to make a confident choice about which question to answer for the duration of the exam.

One last piece of advice: once you have made a plan and begun to write – stick with your choice. The very worst thing you can do is change your mind partway through an exam. Have faith in yourself; if you get stuck, pause, think through any problems, and return to your Venn diagram rather than go back to the start.

What should I write in the introduction?

It is essential that in your introduction you achieve three aims:

  • Define the terms of the question you have chosen to answer and set yourself a conceptual framework in which to write;
  • Introduce the literary works that you will use to explore these terms;
  • State your thesis by setting out specific ways in which your chosen works are both similar and different in terms of the concept you have defined.

You’ll find a good thesis has three parts as well: how the concept is presented through a feature of Work A; how the concept is presented through a feature of Work B; how the concept is presented through a shared feature or different features of both works A and B. Examine the introductions in the sample answers on this page to see what this looks like in practice.

How should I structure my response?

I’m not usually a fan of dictating structures for students to follow. Sometimes teachers can limit their students by making them follow ‘magic sentences’ or formulas. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Paper 2. The idea of comparing and contrasting two complete literary works can be quite overwhelming, and it helps to practise writing in a structure that is effective and achievable in the time you are given in the exam: 1 hour and 45 minutes. Therefore, the main body of your essay can be structured like this:

  • Section 1: discuss a feature of Work A in light of the question. Include analysis of at least one writing feature or stylistic choice made by the writer of Work A.
  • Section 2: discuss a feature of Work B in light of the question. Include analysis of at least one writing feature or stylistic choice made by the writer of Work B. Begin to draw comparisons or contrasts with Work A, but keep the focus on Work B.
  • Section 3: discuss the similarities and/or differences between Work A and Work B in light of the given question.

Each main body section should contain one or two paragraphs. Add an introduction and a conclusion and you can write anywhere between five and eight paragraphs. In terms of length, you should aim to write over three pages and maybe as much as five pages, depending on the size of your handwriting. While quality is preferable to quantity, you need to be honest with yourself about how much knowledge, understanding, analysis, and discussion you can convey in anything under three pages, no matter how small you think your handwriting is. Short answers (and over-long, rambling answers) are unlikely to score very well.

Do I need to memorise quotations?

A close look at the mark scheme for Paper 2 will help answer this question. Criteria B is marked according to your ability to analyse and evaluate ‘textual features and/or writers’ broader choices‘. These phrases give you considerable scope as to how exactly you reference your literary texts. For example, a discussion of symbolism may involve you writing about the broad symbols used in a particular text. In this case, you would only need to remember the symbols, not necessarily quote the exact lines of prose, poetry or drama they appear in. Similarly, the decision to write from a particular point of view is a ‘broader choice’. it is perfectly possible to describe or paraphrase events that happened in a literary work from a certain character’s perspective without replicating exact quotations. The same goes for the rhythm and meter of poems, the way characters effect other characters, the structure of a plot… and so on. Many stylistic choices can be approached in this way.

On the other hand, no feature is more important in a work of literature than a writer’s choice of words. Literature is made of words! Analysing a text without making any reference to specific words might be like trying to describe a work of art without making any reference to line, colour, shape or composition. It’s possible – but it’s likely to be pretty vague and miss out on some of the most important and noteworthy moments. And, in all honesty, I’m sure you can recall some of the words of the texts you have read without even trying to memorise quotations. For example, anyone who’s read The Merchant of Venice is unlikely to forget ‘a pound of flesh’, ‘hath not a Jew eyes’, ‘my house is hell’ and other seminal lines. So my recommendation is to work with the texts closely, read, re-read, practise, and get the language of your texts stuck in your mind. Memorising a dozen or so important quotations from each of your literary works shouldn’t be too hard for anybody. And remember too, in a closed book exam no one is expecting you to have every single word of every single quotation memorised perfectly – paraphrasing the essence of a line and embedding single words and phrases from the literary works is often enough.

Should I write about context and background?

Another good look at the mark scheme helps answer this question. Criteria A asks for your understanding and interpretation of the works in relation to the question. This implies that you can focus your analysis entirely on the literary works you have chosen to write about irrespective of context or background you may have learned.

However, implied in Criteria B is your ability to understand and evaluate the effects a writer was intending to create – and it’s here that your knowledge of context can turn your response from average to good to great. While your personal interpretation of a text is totally valid, you should also be aware that no writer was hiding things in their literary works simply for future IB students to find. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for you – he was writing for a late sixteenth / early seventeenth century English audience who may have had very different expectations, and responded to his words in very different ways, than a twenty-first century teenager in a classroom somewhere else in the world. Being able to write a nuanced response may necessitate consideration of who, exactly, the text was for, and the influence of important social, historical, or cultural factors – and therefore an acknowledgment of the author’s life and wider context of the work. Read one or two of the sample answers in this section to see how contextual information can be integrated concisely into your main body paragraphs.

How do I write a good conclusion?

There are many ways to write an effective conclusion, but as you get towards the end of your answer you might be running short of time. In high pressure situations, it’s tempting to want to finish as quickly as possible. You might, for example, summarise the main points of your response in a nice and neat way – while this isn’t the worst thing you can do, you should ask yourself if this is really necessary. After all, your examiners are (hopefully) intelligent people and it’s unlikely they would need a summary of something they have only just read.

Instead, try to write in a circular structure. Return to your introduction and look again at the concept you defined at the start of your answer. Re-evaluate these ideas with the benefit of the work you have just produced. Can you present a final thought that wraps up your argument nicely, or perhaps present an exception or even irony you have discovered? Check out the sample answers on this page and look at how this might, in reality, be achieved.


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